Reaching for the Stars

On the 26th March I headed off to Kielder because I was booked onto an Astro Photo event at the Observatory. Sarah had bought me a voucher for my last but one birthday and it had expired so I had to cajole the Observatory into letting me use it to book this event. She also bought me my tripod for Christmas and this would be it’s first outing. Given all this I couldn’t understand why she was moaning about me going…unless of course it was because it was Mothers day!

The drive up to Kielder is quite a wild one, I think we live somewhere quite remote but really it’s nothing compared with some of the places you pass on the way to England’s remotest village! We’ve been to the campsite before and we know that there’s no mobile signal or anything up there – in fact on the way back it was about 40 minutes of driving before I got any signal! The last bit of the drive is up a single track road which winds it’s way up the side of the hill before flattening out at the top where there is a car park next to the observatory building. It seems like you are really high up but in reality you’re no higher than you would be at Tow Law, which of course used to have it’s own observatory once upon a time.

I parked in the car park, I could see there were people waiting outside so I guessed it wasn’t open yet. I wasn’t sure which coat to wear as I’d brought my jacket and my big coat. As it wasn’t too cold I plumped for the jacket but figured that I could always go back and get the bigger one if I needed it. I got talking to the chap who was parked next to me as I was putting my coat on and getting my camera out. It dawned on me that I hadn’t brought a hat but I did have a hood so figured that would have to do! I wandered down to the door by which time people were going in. I had printed off my ticket but didn’t need it as they had a laptop with everyone’s name on it.

We were invited to take a seat in the room we’d just gone into. The room was quite small and made of wood. There was a screen onto which were being projected images of space and wood burning stove in the corner. The room was lit with red lights powered, presumably, by the wind turbine we passed on the way in. While we sat and waited for the event to start one of the organisers came dashing in saying “I need my camera there is a beautiful sunset out there” and then he left again. A few seconds later he returned and said “I’m not joking, it’s beautiful and there’s all you lot here with cameras…” I followed him out and took a picture using my mobile phone, others followed and soon there were quite a few of us out there.

The event started with a lecture about photography (obviously) and they ran through a ten point plan to get us started discussing exposure, focussing, file formats, location etc. I found a lot of the stuff I either knew or could have worked out myself but it was useful to hear the tips and techniques. The talk went on for about an hour and at that point we were invited to get our cameras out and go and give it a try. They apparently have a contingency plan in case the sky isn’t clear but thankfully we don’t need it tonight as the skies are clear. I spend a little time sorting out my camera before heading out. I have a shutter release cable but although I’ve tested it before I discover that it doesn’t work if I use the mirror up setting! I also spend time getting the focus correct only to discover later that my lens actually had infinity focus marked on it!

When I eventually get outside I’m struck by how many stars there are out there especially given it doesn’t seem that dark! I was expecting, as we’re in a dark sky park, it to be pitch black but it wasn’t – in fact I think I know places where it seems darker at home but I’m guess that the main factor is lack of light pollution which means the stars can be seen. I spend the next couple of hours taking photos with varying degrees of success! I notice at one point that my camera has gone from RAW to TIF and I wasn’t sure how that happened but I later realised that the button for changing it is next to the button for changing the ISO so I must have changed it by mistake. I also discover that the dial for changing the aperture is right underneath the on/off button and I lost count of how many times I accidentally switched the camera off!

I try different settings and different framings to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. I realise that although the sky looks uniformly dark there is more light nearer the ground than if you point the camera into the sky. I also discover that a foreground object like the observatory works better than just pointing at the stars. I bracket my exposures to see what works and what makes a difference.

At one point we’re called in so they can take coffee orders – apparently we can have tea, coffee or hot chocolate but we can have them in a normal mug which means they have to wash up 30 mugs or we could purchase a nice souvenir Observatory mug from them for £3.50, drink our coffee out of it and then take it home. Apparently they’ve been spotted as far away as Whitley Bay! Needless to say most people went with the second option!

We went back outside while they made our drinks and while I was taking photos it dawned on me that not only did I not feel the cold as much as most people – I was wearing my jacket and hoody but both were open and had no gloves or hat whereas others looked like they were off to explore the artic – but I seem to have much better night vision than most too as people seemed to flounder in the dark and lots had brought red torches to find their way about. My theory is that I’m used to walking in the dark as I have spent most of my life in darkened conference halls but as well as that I walk the dog regularly in the dark roads around Tow Law. I also think your eyes will adjust if you’re in the darkness but if you insist on using a torch they’ll take longer!

The event finished at 11 and then I had an hour and a half journey home again. One road in particular was worrying me as it had been a winding narrow road that was quite scary in the light (I remember it from our trip in the campervan last year)  but at night it would be worse. It turned out not to be as bad as I thought but as I got near the end another car came up behind me. This car then followed me all the way down the A68 till wereached the A69 where he finally overtook me – why he couldn’t overtake me sooner or drop back I don’t know…unless it was because it was a Volvo!

I had a great evening and I am looking forward to finding somewhere near me to go out and take photographs but in the meantime here’s a couple I took tonight!

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